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Park's fishbowl cleaners deserve help from tourist tax

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By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

Like ships in the night, two seemingly unrelated facts pass in the newspaper:

The Citrus County Commission will convene a public hearing Aug. 13 to consider raising the tourist tax from 2 percent to 3 percent. Doing so would add $160,000 to the $355,000 the Tourist Development Council now collects from those who stay in motels and short-term rentals.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park officials are concerned that new federal safety regulations may result in the departure of most of the volunteers who routinely scrub algae from the windows of the fishbowl observatory. The rules, imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, require periodic written and physical tests of divers to meet more stringent standards. Park Manager Tom Linley fears that many volunteers will not pay extra to upgrade their qualifications.

As the facts meet, each recognizes the other's needs, and, at that moment, a bond is formed. Ideas and possibilities excitedly boil to the surface and soon the prospect of making a commitment is raised. Not casual and not exclusive, but practical and sensible.

Okay, no matter how you dress it up, this story will never rival a steamy Danielle Steele novel. But if the initial reactions to this idea are any indication, it could be a case of love at first sight.

As I prepared to write an editorial last week about the proposed increase in the tourist tax, it occurred to me that the biggest freestanding tourist attraction in the county is the state park in Homosassa. More than 265,000 people visited there last year, and that number usually is closer to 300,000.

The park, which boasts an extremely diverse collection of wildlife, is so successful, in part, because of the more than 300 people who volunteer there. Sixty-seven of those volunteers are divers who administer their own brand of TLC to the park's centerpiece, which is the underwater, glass-enclosed observatory known as the fishbowl. Because of their efforts, hundreds of thousands of admission-paying visitors can get a clear view of endangered West Indian manatees and schools of native fish, including snook and jack crevalle.

Given the park's popularity -- it's No. 1 in Florida -- and the potential impact to the team of volunteer divers, wouldn't it make sense for the County Commission to use some of its Tourist Development Council revenue to offset the cost of the volunteers' added training?

Granted, shelling out a few bucks for window cleaners may be a bit more utilitarian than some of the TDC's more speculative expenses, such as advertising and promotion. But the results are more tangible. Equally important, it simultaneously strengthens the relationship between the community and two government agencies whose purpose, albeit for different reasons, is to promote the natural wonders of this corner of the world.

And the state law that governs how tourist tax money can be spent (Florida Statute 125.0104) allows such an expenditure. It reads, in part, " . . . may be used to . . . repair, improve, maintain, operate or promote . . . nature centers which are publicly owned and operated and open to the public."

I ran the idea by TDC Manager Mary Craven and park manager Tom Linley on Friday. Both reacted favorably, saying that the cost, compared to the benefit, should be reasonable. Craven, in particular, liked the idea because it could help her sell the increase in the so-called bed tax to the commission on Aug. 13.

But even if commissioners don't hike the tax, they should fish around in the existing budget for a few bucks to send the park's way.

Just as in matters of the heart, somebody has to make the first move.

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